While quite diverse, Western political thought has long exhibited a rough thread of agreement—from the Enlightenment and The Federalist Papers to John Stuart Mill and the present—that liberty and social progress require a free exchange of ideas, especially among elites. Even among some left-leaning liberals, the residue of this Western tradition is causing concern that the culture of intolerance on our elite campuses may compromise American domestic tranquility. What has not yet attracted attention is the collapse of tolerance at American elite universities, and its potential to affect the formation of future foreign-policy leaders.  

Were you to ask the typical elite-university president if the strain of multiculturalism that dominates American universities will enhance the quality of future world leaders, the reply would undoubtedly be enthusiastic in the affirmative. Support for multiculturalism, it would be argued, will produce future leaders with an attitude of tolerance toward different cultures and a respect for worldwide diversity who will foster international comity. This rosy and predictable reply is, however, far from persuasive. It is hardly reassuring that the dominance of multiculturalism has, on many campuses, bred speech codes, intolerance of opposing opinions and in some cases violence against dissidents. Will future foreign-policy leaders, emerging from this multicultural milieu, exhibit tolerance on the world stage?

The argument in favor of a multicultural attitude toward world affairs has at least a surface plausibility and moral attractiveness. Indeed, how can our leaders get along with other cultures, nations and civilizations if they do not operate with tolerance and openness toward diversity? But there are two very different, even incompatible philosophies of multiculturalism, one sound and the other unsound.

The multicultural attitude that dominates the American academy today might be labeled “multicultural romanticism.” This ideology is an echo of certain schools of 18th- and 19th-century Romantic literature and philosophy and involves a derivative view of human nature: human fulfillment emerges from what is spontaneous, impulsive, and unique. What was to be elevated and celebrated, even worshipped, were the distinctive, possibly idiosyncratic, characteristics of groups. Distinctiveness conferred special status.

Today white heterosexual males have been discovered to be unjustifiably the focus of historical analysis. They must now be tossed down an existential black hole because the characteristics they display are common and traditional, not diverse. In this perspective, unique characteristics by themselves bring social status and become the basis for moral preening. The old romantic drive for uniqueness now sometimes leads to humorous results. For example, the acronym LGB (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) has morphed into LGBTQI because, with the romantic multicultural outlook, finding new and distinctive sexual and gender identities becomes a means of social elevation.

The Romanticism that has influenced this form of contemporary multiculturalism represents a revolution in ethics and morality. Traditional ethics argued that the characteristics of individuals or groups are accidents of history and of little importance compared with the moral quality of a person’s character. To the Romantic, on the contrary, the temperamental assertion of one’s uniqueness becomes the moral standard, hence the desire of the Romantic Bohemian to differentiate himself in dress, behavior, and attitude from everything traditional and classical. Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed this attitude perfectly in the opening of his Confessions: “I propose to show my fellows a man as nature made him, and this man shall be myself.” And, Rousseau says, “If I am no better than other men, at least I am different.”

To an Aristotle or a Confucius, to assert superior moral status by simply flaunting one’s differences from others would have been an absurdity. In this older view, the only method for the individual to become more humane and to benefit society was to bend one’s behavior to a moral standard above the accidental and temperamental. Moreover, traditional ethics would point out that self-assertion is generally not the road to peace. As anyone who rides the subway knows, social comity tends not arise from individuals asserting their uniqueness; social order tends to emerge when a large number of individuals discipline their own temperamental selves.

Therefore, a multiculturalism of the kind that now dominates, which denies the moral dimension of human nature, is problematic. It is breeding intolerance on campus. Assertions of moral superiority based upon characteristics that are lacking in moral content produce a narcissistic holier-than-thou sense of personal righteousness—the very psychological archetype of an imperialistic personality. The traditional moral virtues of moderation and self-control, the virtues that tend bring people together, are replaced with a worship of self not tied to any higher standards of behavior.

The worldview of the Romantic psyche has troubling implications for world affairs. In the late 18th century, Madame de Staël adopted the Romantic idea of individual self-assertion, wrote it in larger letters, and applied it to nations. Without reference to a higher moral standard, she argued that nations asserting the spontaneous originality of their individual cultures would lead to a wonderfully diverse and peaceful world in which nations would respect and learn from each other’s differences. While it would be unfair to leave all of the nationalistic wars of the 19th and 20th centuries on the doorstep of Madam de Staël—many others would express the same sentiments—there is undoubtedly an intellectual connection between theories of the kind that she exemplified and the amoral, and even immoral, concepts of nationalism embodied in, for instance, the nationalistic version of German Kultur. “Nation above all else” was a concept alien to the older Western civilization. It was introduced by the mentioned type of Romanticism, which was stirring already in the philosopher of the French Revolution, Rousseau.

What needs to be understood is that a temperamental assertion of superiority, not based upon genuine moral qualities but merely upon an assertion of uniqueness, tends to generate conflict. The Romantic dream of world peace through temperamental nation-states asserting their national differences became in practice Napoleonism and, in the 20th century, the nightmare of conscripted armies serving the nationalistic cause and slaughter on a scale that would have been unimaginable in the medieval world. Contrary to the utopian dreaming associated with it, national self-assertion, like individual self-assertion, tends not to bring social order and peace but seething conflict and intolerance.

While 20th-century nationalism has been discredited, the Romantic dream lives on in the 21st-century devotion to “democracy promotion.” The championing of democratic processes has replaced Kultur as a justification for national self-assertion. Peace will flourish, we are told, when national spirits are unshackled in the voting booth and the natural virtue of a people, previously suppressed by a tyrant, exhibits itself through purple fingers held aloft.

Democracy promotion evinces the same moral evasions as multicultural romanticism and 20th-century nationalism: It has no concern about the moral quality of democracy and assumes that moral superiority will come simply through a process. As we have seen in Iraq, democratic process as a means of conflict resolution and political order is a utopian fantasy. It evades a central problem of political order: the moral quality of the leaders and the people themselves.

The notion of America as inherently exceptional and justified in asserting its will on behalf of democracy is evidently another example of romantic nationalism, but it also illustrates the dangers built into this kind of self-congratulation. Predictably, like the multicultural romantics, the advocates of democracy promotion display intolerance by arguing that only through Western democratic institutions can nations achieve legitimacy. Opposition cannot be tolerated and belligerence marks the attitude toward any nations who do not embrace the West’s democratic process. Dictators must be overthrown even if their demise will unleash hell’s fury upon the nation.

The obvious ethical infirmity at the heart of multicultural romanticism has caused many conservatives to argue for scrapping the entire project of multiculturalism. Unfortunately, this would not solve the problems here discussed. It must not be overlooked that multiculturalism and Romanticism have the great virtue of recognizing that the world, as it exists, is a wonder of diversity. What is valuable and noble never enters the world in precisely the same garb. It assumes somewhat different forms depending on historical circumstances.

Pope John Paul II and Rosa Parks, for example, shared few common physical characteristics or historical circumstances, but they shared an uncommon courage. For this reason alone, an acceptance of and even a respect for differences seems the only possible route to a peaceful world. What is needed is a sound form of multiculturalism; one that recognizes the moral nature of human beings and that understands that they tend to live peacefully together only when they have a modicum of moral character. Without the self-restraint of character, they will be prone to conflict. With character, there can be both diversity and peace.

Sound foreign-policy leadership will not come from a multicultural romanticism that worships superficial differences or a universalist democracy that insists on Western institutions. But a multicultural cosmopolitanism can recognize in diverse cultures and nations a common humanity—and understand that the best qualities of human nature can be exhibited in many different ways. Universities should and must be places where different nations and cultures are studied—not to probe the superficial differences between peoples but to understand a higher common humanity that is expressed in diverse ways. Ultimately, the peoples of East and West, for example, will get along peacefully only if their leaders display certain moral qualities that make them sensible, self-controlled, moderate, decent, and respectful. A leader of China whose character is in some way shaped by a Confucian outlook would, no doubt, seek peaceful relations with a Western leader whose character is influenced in some way by an Aristotelian outlook.

While international events are shaped by hugely complex factors—economic, military, and cultural—that must be managed with prudence, the only true guarantor of peace is a certain quality of character in the leaders of nations. What inspires and guides human behavior is at the root of all political order or disorder. In this regard, the leadership training offered by our elite universities is most troubling. It conspicuously neglects the central human challenge of conduct and character in favor of a celebration of temperamental individualism or group differences. An ironclad law of history is that nations led by those who worship temperamental self-assertion will be nations prone to war, as the United States has been for decades.

William S. Smith is research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.